[ditty_news_ticker id="27897"] “OCA. We are a city on a hill” – Svetlana Vais interviews Mark Stokoe - Orthodox Christian Laity

“OCA. We are a city on a hill” – Svetlana Vais interviews Mark Stokoe



Mark Stokoe

Source: Portal-Credo.Ru

1. With your permission, Mark, tell me, based solely on your personal experience, to what extent can the internal life of the church can be presented for public discussion? I do not mean the parish meetings and Council — the issue is specific to the press. Especially the Internet – with its almost instantaneous reaction. Do you personally have any criteria?

St. Mark the Evangelist – not Mark Stokoe – said: “There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed, and there is nothing secret that will not become known and come to light.” And St. Luke said almost exactly the same: “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. ” St. John wrote: “But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his works may be revealed, that they have been done in God.” And St. Matthew said: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” I think it safe to say that with all four Evangelists in full agreement the “criteria” regarding transparency in the Church should be pretty clear not just for me personally, but for every Christian. There is no point to being “a city set on a hill”, if it too has hidden dungeons full of secrets beneath it….

As for the internet, it is not only speed, but the unparalleled reach of this new medium that changes everything. But in the end: so what? It is only confirmation of the Evangelist’s teaching: all that is hidden will be revealed in the end. The “solution” to this “problem” then, is not to betray the Gospel by continuing to hide “secrets”, but to practice what we preach. When people fall short we tell them to confess, repent and be healed. When those in the Church fall short of the Glory of God, should they not do the same?

2. Should church leaders engage in public debate about internal matters of the church? On the one hand, no one wants to see a church official talking about things which are not the most beautiful part of church life — but on the other hand, everyone wants to know the details from the original source. In my view, the presence of an official press service within the church structure, is the height of cynicism towards the members of the church — even if it’s needed.

In a word: Yes. How does one resolve differences but through discussion and dialog. And are we children that we can only hear and deal with “the beautiful part of church life?” Is that what St. Paul meant when he hoped that we would “…all become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”? I think not. Life is hard, and life in community can sometimes be harder. And that means there will be, being human, disagreements and sometimes even dissension in the Church. But I ask you: What is the point of being a city on the hill, if every time we disagree we shut the gates, pull up the drawbridge, turn out the castle lights, and go down to hidden chambers? How then, are we any different from the cities of the world? Do you think the world will not notice what we are doing? And how we are doing it? Transparency and Accountability are virtues not “problems” to be “overcome”.

As for an official press service within church structures, I think you yourself have given the best reason one should exist: one wants to hear the details from the original source. However, if a Church media is only a propaganda service, only serves to excuse, to obfuscate, to “photoshop” out inconvenient truths as it were, to turnout lights rather than shine a light on that city on a hill, then, yes, it is worse than a waste of time. It is a sinful waste of time. Official Church media should offer the first, best, most honest and most complete witness of the Church’s real life, warts and all. Only in this way will we build trust, keep trust, and deserve to be trusted.

3. Do you think that Patriarch Tikhon’s dream of a Local Orthodox Church in America could ever be fulfilled? Or would our national and cultural roots never allow us to do this? How is this happening today. But, perhaps, it’s for the good of American Orthodoxy?

It has been! It’s called the OCA. Is it perfect? Hardly. But it is the local Orthodox Church in North America, even if it is not yet recognized by all the other local Orthodox Churches as such. But one day it will be recognized, that I know, because such is the teaching of the Church and the tide of history. It took the Lutherans in America for example (who were in 15 ethnic and national groupings in America – as opposed to Orthodoxy’s 26!) more than 250 years to unite, and they have still not achieved full unity. We have come far in just 40 years. We’re on our way. Give us at least a 100 before we are judged, OK?

4. Can we even employ such a term as “American Orthodoxy”?

If by “American Orthodoxy” you mean something akin to Greek Orthodoxy, or Russian Orthodoxy, no. There has never been such a thing — because there has never been an ethnically distinct, national or state Orthodox church here, nor will there ever be one. God forbid! All Americans share certain cultural assumptions regarding the virtue of separation of church and state, religious freedom, the value of cultural diversity, etc. So “American Orthodoxy” in that kind of traditional, historical Old World models will never exist — because it would then not be “American” in any recognizable sense.

We can, however, speak of an American Orthodox Church as a unique institution, and Orthodox Christians in America as a distinct religious type, the characteristics of both which can be described as empirically distinguishable from Orthodox Churches or Christians in say, Bulgaria or Russia, or Greece. This was made clear to me 30 years ago at my first SYNDESMOS meeting in Finland in 1981. The Orthodox young people from America, representing the OCA, Greek, Antiochian, and a few other jurisdictions, had never even met each other, and though several of us thought of ourselves as “Russian Orthodox” or “Greek Orthodox” or “Arab Orthodox”, rather than “American Orthodox”, it was obvious to each of us after a few minutes that we weren’t anything like our brothers and sisters from across the sea. Were we less Orthodox? Hardly. But we understood our experiences, assumptions, perspectives, attitudes and goals were culturally very distinct from our Orthodox brethren. It was a very eye-opening experience. In short, while “American Orthodoxy” does not exist, and never will, a new and unique Orthodox “culture” is slowly emerging. Some will continue deny its existence, or authenticity, or validity, just like some biologists denied the existence of the such an improbable animal as the Australian Duckbill Platypus. It’s a mammal that lays eggs! And yet it exists…. and so do we. Personally, I think is exciting to think how Orthodoxy in America will enrich the Church as a whole in coming centuries, even as Orthodox in America continue to be enriched from their various ancestral homelands.

5. How do you feel about the translation of liturgical books and prayers into English? Despite criticism of theologians throughout the Christian world, this process is under way and increases the membership of the OCA. Certainly, it will keep our children in the church, but will they not reproach us for retreating from canonicity? This is not a new issue, but thus far it has not been resolved, and interest in it has not been quenched.

I am the wrong person to whom to ask that question! Forty years ago I attended my first Divine Liturgy on Pentecost Sunday, in a beautiful OCA church in Seattle, that was wonderfully decorated with birch trees and lovely flowers, with a magnificent choir, full of pious people, surrounded by hundreds of icons — and I couldn’t understand a word because it was all in Church Slavonic. I was like a cultural anthropologist watching a strange new tribe, rather than a pilgrim seeking God. Two months later I attended a second Divine Liturgy, at an OCA mission service, held in the living room of a small private house in Seattle, with no choir, one icon, with just six people present. But because it was all English I understood what was being said, and I experienced the Kingdom of God — and began my journey to the Church. So are translations important? You bet.

I have to admit a perverse love of poor translations, though. One of my favorites is an old ROCOR English translation of the Canon of St. Andrew from the 1930’s that describes Ahab as “a red-hot, sin-loving man” and refers to “Jezebel and her flunkies”. Clearly some well-meaning Russian priest visited too many Pentecostal prayer services, thinking that was “real” American English! The bottom line is that there will always be disagreements about the adequacy of translations. After 1300 years many Greeks still think Church Slavonic is unable to express the subtleties of the Divine Liturgy correctly! No, seriously, I have heard that debated. So, there will always be disputes about meanings, style and questions of taste when something new is attempted. But this why we have liturgical and theological specialists – and I defer to their learned judgments.

6. And one more question which continues to be debated – whether autocephaly for the OCA was the right decision? Apparently, at that time – yes, but is there some other solution to the issue of OCA’s independence for the future?

Only Metropolitan Jonah publicly questioned that. No one else in the OCA did. I think I speak for the vast overwhelming majority in the OCA that autocephaly was right in 1970, and remains so today. I swear though, if Jesus Christ were to return next Sunday, carried by legions of angels, and entered an OCA church during the Great Entrance, physically as well as mystically, there would be some professional OCA-haters who would ask: “What jurisdiction does he belong to?”

The OCA Synod has repeatedly said, and rightfully so, that the OCA is independent, and will remain independent, but will gladly merge with any future autocephalous Orthodox Church in North America that would merge all the existing canonical “jurisdictions”. What the OCA is not willing to do is abandon our current, actual independence for a vague “promise” of a “possible” independence at sometime in the future, “in the fullness of time”, to be determined by a foreign Patriarchate. As we say in America, if you can buy that, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. It’s a very large bridge too.”

7. It is no secret that the membership of the OCA is still divided between those who are somehow involved with Russian culture and people who came to the Russian Orthodox Church in some other way. I think that only by having a Russian mentality can one understand that the MP is no longer the Mother Church, but a cynical stepmother and our autocephaly protects us from the MP rather makes us closer to her. But those members of the OCA who do not realize what is happening within the depths of the MP and who do not have any relationship to Russia continue to look at Russia’s Christ the Savior Cathedral with delight and await good deeds. I think this was the tragedy of Metropolitan Jonah’s career. Is there a “Russian” and “non-Russian” lobby in the OCA?

No. The vast majority of the OCA were never Russian, but Rusyn, that is, Carpatho-Russian former Uniates who re-converted to Orthodox in the two decades around the turn of the 20th century. Add to that Alaskan natives, Mexicans, and now converts, and you find the number of “Russians” in the OCA were always a minority, concentrated in the upper clergy on both coasts. The existing “Russians”are now mostly the grandchildren of those exiles who came via Paris or Harbin following the Second World War (And the most famous of these “Russians” was Fr. Georges Florovsky, who was a priest, not of Moscow, nor the OCA, nor ROCOR, but the Ecumenical Patriarchate!), or recent immigrants who have little contact with the Church except for “needs”. In short, there is no “Russian lobby” in the OCA. There is among some, and +Jonah was an example, a romantic, sentimental attachment to the idea of “Holy Russia”, a fantastical land of lost Tsars, gilded domes, long beards, big monasteries and balalaikas. (When you worship in a small mission parish of 20 people, in a rented building, looking at Christ the Saviour Cathedral gives you a sense of belonging to something much bigger than the realities of Orthodox Church life in America!) I often met this kind of Orthodox American in my youth — converts who enjoyed pretending to be in exile from a land they had never visited. It made for good piroshkis, but not a good spiritual life. The real Russia, and the realities of the Russian Church, are, and remain unknown to most Orthodox Americans, including those in the OCA.

8. Do America’s Orthodox realize to which of three Russian Orthodox jurisdictions their parish belongs? Or do they attend one that’s closest?

LOL! A Russian ship discovers a desert island and finds a Russian Robinson Crusoe and his companion, Friday, who he has converted to Orthodoxy. The ship’s captain marvels at all that Crusoe and Friday have built, but wonders why there are two identical Russian Churches across the street from each other in the little village they created. Crusoe points to one of the Churches and says: “That is the Russian Church we belong to.” He then points to the other: ” And this is the Russian Church we don’t attend.” Too often, this is the sad reality of life in the so-called Diaspora. There are many reasons for this, but the point is everyone knows which Church is which – and most have never even been inside “the Russian church they don’t attend”, no matter how close it is. Nor is this only a problems with Russians. My OCA parish in Dayton has been here for 25 years – and yet the vast majority of Greek Orthodox Christians in Dayton have no idea we even exist because the priest will not tell them we do. He sees an all –English speaking, multicultural Orthodox Church in the city as a grave threat to his ethnic parish. Such things are changing – but very slowly. But it is very sad.

9. What fate do you foresee for the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad? Personally, I do not see an independent future for this church after it is absorbed by the MP; and this is a deliberate humiliation of a whole generation of Russian immigrants who preserved their faith on a foreign territory.

I would agree they have a hard row to hoe, as we say in America. Demographics, politics, culture, finances – these are all against them. They have been declining in numbers for 3 generations. Now they have switched from being virulently anti-Moscow to becoming part of Moscow, which further divided and weakened their small communities. But are they doomed? We still have Shakers – and they have practiced celibacy for 150 years. No religious group ever disappears in America, they just move to California! Seriously, sadly, it is hard to see how ROCOR survives as an independent body over the long term. A Church in America of the old Russian traditions, free of the politics of the Kremlin, can only be an asset. Of course, personally, I’d prefer they transfer from Mosocw into the OCA, as a unique non-geographical Russian diocese, since they are in America, and not in exile anymore. I wish them well, whatever course they choose – assuming they still have a choice.

10. The frequent replacement of OCA metropolitans in recent years – was it due to a set of circumstances or is it the norm? How does this affect the attitude of the world-wide political sphere towards the OCA? Or it has no effect?

Well, there have been 20 ruling primates of the OCA since its founding as a missionary diocese in 1799; and the first drowned on his way to America. Not a good precedent, huh? The next 19 ruled, for better or worse, for an average of 7-10 years each, the longest serving for 26 years; the shortest for 4 years, and of these 11 went onto higher ecclesiastical positions in Russian Empire. Two have been glorified as saints (St. Innocent of Alaska, St. Tikhon of Moscow), and a third is currently being investigated for sainthood (Metropolitan Leonty +1966). One other drowned (life on the frontier was hard), another was transferred before he even got here, and 3 died of old age in America. The bottom line is that it is a fairly impressive record, if you count 3 saints among the 18 hierarchs who actually served here. Only two have ever been forced to resign – pardon me, decided “to retire” – so it is hardly the norm.

Have the two recent resignations had an effect on the OCA’s reputation? Clearly. It is embarrassing. But the more important question is, has it been a bad thing? Which is worse – keeping an unfit person in office so as not to sully the Church’s reputation; or taking action and stop the problem? Americans are a pragmatic people. We see a problem, we want to fix it — not suffer from it indefinitely because “….that’s they way things are done.” So, what many in the Old World may see as a problem, we in America see a virtue. (Note: Remember how you asked if there is such a thing as American Orthodoxy? Well, here is one example of real cultural differentiation between the Old and New World Orthodoxy….)

11. How do you feel about the fact that the OCA largely resembles an American business corporation, rather than a spiritual center? It is possible that I’m mistaken, because I am a parishioner of a parish at the OCA chancery, and I see the administrative side of life.

LOL. Well, if that were really the case the OCA is the worst run American business corporation in the world! But the fact is that you are totally, horribly and woefully mistaken. Sorry. My parish began 25 years ago with 14 people. It has 200 now, in an area that is losing population. So come to Dayton, or San Francisco, or Miami, or Montreal, or Black Lick, PA, or any other of the 700+ OCA parishes and odds are you will find a vibrant spiritual center in which people are glorifying God, changing lives and changing their communities. Of course there are lazy priests, petty parishioners, and dying parishes as well in the OCA – but in America they don’t last too long. People have choices here, and they vote with their feet. That is another difference in American and Old World Orthodoxy – here you must be Orthodox by choice, not by cultural default; and you must choose it everyday or it disappears. There is no Orthodox architectural, cultural, historical or monumental legacy to remind one that Orthodoxy still exists, even when you are not interested.

12. Do you think that after Metropolitan Jonah’s departure the relationships between the OCA administration and the bishops have been normalized?

Yes. The situation under +Jonah was not sustainable – something had to give, and by unanimous agreement it was +Jonah who had to go, as he was the major source of the disruption. Are things perfect now? Hardly. But it is sustainable. And getting better in many ways.

13. Can we speak of a leading lobby in the OCA? For example, the Chancery? Or a group of bishops? Or a group of lay people and clergy of the OCA? Or some other?

In the past you could speak of the absolute dominance of the Bishops, and later Fr. Schmemann. But since his death, neither the bishops, nor clergy, nor laity, nor groups within them have dominated. Whoever believes in the existence of lobbies ( St. Vladimir’s vs. St. Tikhon’s seminary graduates, or Russians vs. converts or Liberals vs. Conservatives) in the OCA has never been to the Chancery, or to a Metropolitan Council meeting, or even a diocesan assembly, where often there is either total unanimity — or total confusion. Parties, lobbies, etc. would make it all so much easier! In reality there is great diversity in the OCA, and all decisions taken reflect that diversity, rather than the influence of any “lobby”. It’s one reason it takes so long to do anything in the OCA – and also why once a decision is finally achieved, there is little serious dissent. It has already been expressed, and resolved. We are a conciliar Church, in which things are often messy, but like England, we somehow “muddle through”.

14. A great deal of responsibility will rest on the shoulders of the new Metropolitan OCA; what qualities of a candidate should delegates to the upcoming XVII Council in Parma pay attention?

Let’s be frank. None of the OCA bishops are well known outside their dioceses, with a few exceptions. +Michael was the long-time Dean of St. Tikhon’s, so some clergy know him beyond his diocese; and +Melchisedek was Acting Chancellor for a while, so others know him a bit. But no bishop is going to get 2/3 of the votes on the first ballot – which means it is the Synod, not the Assembly, who will actually choose and elect the next Metropolitan. That is a reality no matter what two names are put forward by the Assembly. So the question you should be asking is: “What qualities does the Synod want in a new Metropolitan?” And that is a question I could not answer, having never sat on the Synod.

15. Whom would you like to see as your Metropolitan? You need not be specific, but at least tell me- is there such a man today in the OCA today?

I want to see someone elected who will not be forced to resign because of secrets, either his own or for covering-up those of others, in either the past or the present. Is there such a man on the Synod of the OCA today? Yes. Will they elect him? I am an eternal optimist.

16. Why is everyone so afraid of you?

They aren’t afraid of me – they are afraid of secrets. But as we are liberated from our own fears, we liberate others. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. That was the goal of OCANews.org – and it worked.

So in my heart, I would say that the deepest fear in the OCA is not that we are inadequate: it is the light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in every one of us. As Orthodox Christians we are meant to shine, to be that city on a hill. And that is what we are building in the OCA – not another Kremlin, not another Phanar, not another museum of Christian antiquities, but a city on a hill – one that reveals not our light, but “The Light of the World”.

Svetlana Vais, New York, USA.  Originally published on October 14, 2012


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